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True Confessions

There were some honorable voices on the right. Brock notes that William Kristol warned him to focus on substantive disagreements with the Clinton administration, not scandal, a warning that he didn’t heed. Instead Brock heard the call of fame, fortune, and the chance to become, for the right, a political hero: that was the prospect held out to him by secret mentors such as D.C. Appeals Court Judge Lawrence Silberman, whom, Brock says, he spoke with almost every day. Brock describes the powerful jurist in this way:

Though he was a sitting federal judge who would rule on matters to which the Clinton administration was a party, Larry strongly urged me to go forward…. Clinton would be “devastated,” and therefore the story could only greatly enhance my reputation…. [He] told me he felt sure that if the same story had been written about Ronald Reagan, it would have toppled him from office. Clinton, he surmised, might be toppled as well. Of course the liberal media might ignore the story to protect Clinton, but in conservative circles, I would be king. When I heard that, I was over the fence. I left the Silbermans’ house with a racing pulse.

As Brock tells it in his memoir, an odd cross between a mea culpa and an exposé of his erstwhile peers, the Clintons’ real offense was that they were politically threatening to many conservatives. Unable to defeat them in controversies over policy, the right resorted to attacking them personally:

The people I knew at the highest levels of Washington, the Ted Olsons of the world, understood that the Clintons, while they weren’t free of compromise, cronyism, and even an occasional whiff of sleaze, were no different from many other successful politicians…they were not murderous thugs, or felons, or even ethical or moral abominations, and no one in Olson’s set of canny conservative lawyers thought they were. The problem for the Clintons was that they were successful, and far from perfect, Democrats.

2.

The problem for Brock, however, is that he is “far from perfect,” too. He is by now the most famous turncoat since Whittaker Chambers, as well as a confessed liar and a self-described “right-wing hit man.” Another problem for him is that verification of the most disturbing of the dirty dealings he alleges, such as Justice Thomas’s role in smearing witnesses against himself, will probably never be forthcoming, because only someone compromised by participating would know enough to confirm his account. The conservative underworld that he describes in Washington was steeped in secrecy and distrust. It is highly unlikely that anyone on the outside, a reporter or historian, would ever be given access to their secrets. The question is: Should readers believe David Brock now?

This is a particularly complicated question for me. Jill Abramson (now the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times) and I were among the first to write about Brock’s earlier credibility problems, in a 1993 review of The Real Anita Hill in The New Yorker. We wrote the review because we felt we were obliged to correct the record. At the time we were both newspaper reporters for The Wall Street Journal and were working on Strange Justice, a book on the Hill–Thomas confrontation which asserted that the weight of evidence suggested that Hill had been telling the truth but had been discredited by Thomas’s political backers. Because of the research we had done, we recognized the extent to which Brock was twisting the truth. Our piece on Brock’s false reporting, which exposed many of the dubious techniques that he confesses to now, was met by fierce political attacks on us by Thomas’s supporters. Brock retaliated against us himself in 1995, shortly after our book came out. The American Spectator published his scorching 22,000-word “review” in which, he now admits in Blinded by the Right, he lied about the accuracy of our reporting to protect his reputation and hurt ours. Although he says he had often printed misleading information without bothering to check whether it was true, in our case he knew that what he was writing was false. “I had to win one more for the movement,” he confesses. “I crossed a line I had never crossed before…. I put a lie in print.”

Actually, it was more like a mille-feuille of lies, layer upon layer. Brock ended his review in an almost comical example of projection, writing that by creating “one of the most outrageous hoaxes in recent memory,” we “rivaled the Washington Post‘s Janet Cooke,” who had infamously fabricated a Pulitzer Prize–winning news story. Brock’s “review” was audaciously inventive. It looked authoritative, and even had a dozen footnotes. But almost everything in the review was false. He claimed we interviewed people we hadn’t spoken to, and hadn’t interviewed people we had. He claimed that we were covering up a secret interview with Anita Hill that had never existed. He asserted that there was no evidence that Clarence Thomas liked pornography as Hill had testi-fied and as our interviews had established. Brock now says that when he tried to check our work on this in order to refute it, one of Thomas’s closest aides privately confirmed that it was true. Yet Brock lied about this in his review.

Brock also finally admits publicly what we have long known, that he went so far as to try to blackmail one of our sources into recanting. He prepared a false statement for the frightened woman, a mid-level municipal bureaucrat named Kaye Savage, to sign. In it, Savage was to falsely accuse us of misquoting her about the Playboy pinups she had seen on the walls of Thomas’s apartment. If she didn’t sign the misleading statement, Brock threatened to print embarrassing, unverified personal information that was contained in her sealed divorce record. Brock claims that Justice Thomas, by then confirmed and on the Supreme Court, was the source behind this information, passing it on through a mutual friend, a former Bush White House counsel’s office lawyer, Mark Paoletta, now an aide to a Republican congressman on Capitol Hill. (Paoletta has since denied this, but Brock stands by his story.) “Surely,” Brock writes now, it was “skirting the bounds of judicial propriety to intimidate and smear yet another witness against him, [but] Thomas was playing dirty, and so was I.”

Brock abandoned his extortion plan only after Savage retained a lawyer, who warned him about blackmail. Even so, Brock’s attack on our book was apparently convincing enough for a producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes to call us. We assumed that the show wanted to present the allegations in our book. But we learned that instead they wanted to run an exposé—on us. By showing them a trail of documents, we managed to dissuade them from doing the story. But we realized how readily reputations could be ruined, and responsible professionals damaged, not to mention the expensive legal entanglements that can result when political smears are repeated in the media.

Clearly, attempted blackmail, lies, paid hits, and character assassination in the service of distorting the truth don’t ordinarily enhance a writer’s credibility. There is probably no one more distrustful of him now than myself, as the one-time target of Brock’s tactics. But I must say that concerning those parts of Brock’s memoir that I have firsthand knowledge of, Brock, in Blinded by the Right, is telling the truth.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich, while warning that readers should not necessarily take Brock’s account on faith, has similarly vouched for the accuracy of the material Brock includes about him. Errors of both fact and judgment in his book will probably come to light, because Brock has a history of mistaking advocacy for reporting. But for the most part, he is writing here about episodes that he witnessed firsthand. Perhaps, as Brock insists, he has matured, both professionally and personally. In any event, the book has been available in easy reach of critics for several months, but other than small quibbles from mostly minor characters, there have been no serious blows to its credibility yet.

A few of Brock’s former comrades in arms, such as Judge Silberman’s wife, Ricky, and Paoletta, have denounced his credibility. Once a liar, always a liar, conservative critics have suggested, without following the logic backward into an examination of where that leaves his earlier work. More recently, there has also been a concerted effort by his former friends to question his sanity. Cyber-gossip Matt Drudge posted a story alleging that Brock was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown last summer, a story that Brock has affirmed and has declined to comment on, but that displays the venomous sentiment toward him among conservatives. Brock’s description of his role as the student journalist at Berkeley has been contested by several colleagues. TV pundit Tucker Carlson has denied a quote that Brock attributes to him. Former left-wing-radical-turned-right- wing-radical David Horowitz has denied an anti-gay jibe ascribed to him (only to have Brock’s account confirmed by Horowitz’s interlocutor). Robert Bartley, the editor of The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page published an excerpt from Brock’s book on Anita Hill, has denounced Brock as “the John Walker Lindh of contemporary conservatism,” but has cited no inaccuracy in the book. R. Emmett Tyrrell, Brock’s former editor at the American Spectator, has tried to defend stories that Brock has now debunked. Theodore Olson has denied under oath knowing as much as Brock claims he did about secret payments from Scaife which financed the so-called “Arkansas Project” at the American Spectator, a $2.4 million special investigative operation devoted to attacking the Clintons. In view of the sensational allegations that Brock levels at many of the most prominent members of Washington’s conservative elite from Justice Thomas on down, then, aside from Olson’s denial, which Brock contests, their silenceon all but trivia seems revealing.

3.

In his book Brock depicts himself as the perfect recruit for a group of extreme conservatives in Washington that he likens to a “a radical cult.” The “Third Generation Conservatives,” as he calls them, entered politics in the 1980s after the excitement of anti-communism was over. Lacking a grand global purpose, they turned their energies loose on domestic foes, although Brock suggests they were less concerned with ideas than with simply winning, by whatever means were necessary, including deceptive ones. Brock, for his part, was raised in an at-mosphere of secrecy and deception. Adopted by lower-middle-class parents in the suburbs of New Jersey who viewed adoption as a social stigma, he was taught by his well-meaning but appearance-conscious mother never to let anyone know the family secret. Much later, when he faced having his homosexuality “outed” by the press, his mother again counseled him to lie rather than shame the family, advice he didn’t follow. “Living with the secrecy and lies,” he writes, “I acquired an unusual ability to block out and avoid the truth and to live my life with no inner questioning.”

Brock’s father was a conservative Irish-Catholic marketing executive whose politics were to the right of Patrick Buchanan’s. Although his mother leaned toward the Democrats, Brock’s father broke with the Vatican over its liberal reforms in the 1960s, instead following the excommunicated French reactionary archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The historian Richard Hofstadter, in his essay in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, infuriated American conservatives by implying that their views were a form of abnormal psychology, but Brock himself embraces this notion. He describes himself—and many of his cohorts—as drawn to politics out of emotional need, not reflection. He wanted to belong, to be important, to wear French cuffs and drive a black Mercedes like his boss. Brock writes that he became an ideological warrior to fill the “emptiness inside me,” but he also filled his bank account. He and his friends called his townhouse in Georgetown “The House That Anita Hill Bought,” which it was, and still is, despite all of his apologies. Attacking Anita Hill and her supporters, he says, filled him with purpose. “Thomas’s tormenters stood in for the evil empire—my own version of the paranoid style of politics.”

Brock writes that he felt himself a pariah, and made himself into one, sometimes laughably so. When his family moved to Texas, for instance, he crusaded against his high school’s “bloated” athletic budget in a state where high school football is practically a state religion. His bewildered family’s home was pelted with eggs. As a self-styled Robert Kennedy Democrat (although he was barely in grade school when Kennedy was shot) he attended the University of California in Berkeley largely to infuriate his father. Before long, however, he placed himself at odds with the prevailing liberal ethos there, too, defending Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. He also made himself personally despised by spreading malicious lies about a rival on the student newspaper, and was caught.

Brock’s temperament blended perfectly with the aggrieved mentality of the right-wing group he encountered in Washington, where he moved after college to work for the Reverend Moon’s Washington Times. Ronald Reagan was in his second term as president, but conservatives still felt themselves disenfranchised. The Senate’s refusal to confirm Robert Bork in 1987 made them feel cheated and abused, and they vowed never to let themselves be “Borked” again. This bitter sense of victimization ran deeply through the Clarence Thomas fight too: Thomas made himself out to be the victim of “a high-tech lynching,” a political pariah, an image that hugely appealed to Brock.

After his triumph over Anita Hill, Brock looked for new targets. Unlike the mainstream press, which prides itself on its independence, Brock admits that “our publications functioned as adjuncts to the conservative movement; we were co-conspirators in the anti-Clinton jihad.” So he had few compunctions, apparently, when Peter Smith, the mysterious Chicago businessman, gave him a tip about four Arkansas state troopers who had served on then Governor Clinton’s security staff and wanted to expose Clinton’s womanizing. Obsessed by Clinton, Smith had spent $80,000 in- vestigating his private life. Now he hoped that “Troopergate” would disgrace the new president. Without documentation, and neglecting to mention the payments the troopers were promised by Smith, Brock reported their stories to add color to the familiar caricature of Clinton as a maniacal sex addict, and Hillary as a crazed feminist. (Years later, two of the troopers admitted under oath that they had no firsthand knowledge of the allegations. The other two defended their stories, but admitted that they had been paid by Smith. Meanwhile, many of the most vivid claims, as well as the only serious charge, that Clinton had tried to buy the silence of one of the troopers with a job offer, fell apart almost immediately.)

In spite of its partisan origins, shaky evidence, and the invasion of presidential privacy that this story entailed, several reputable news organizations raced to pick it up. Remembering the techniques he had been taught “at the knee of Erwin Glikes…that right-wing journalism had to be injected into the bloodstream of the liberal media for maximum effect,” Brock leaked an embargoed copy of the Troopergate story to a friend at CNN in advance of its publication in the Spectator. The story led the evening newscast. Brock then lied to his bosses at the Spectator about how they had lost their “exclusive.” It was the Troopergate story that mentioned, although only in passing, the woman referred to as “Paula,” the first step to Clinton’s impeachment.

Brock portrays his moral awakening as less an epiphany than a collision with stubborn facts. Yet his account of this overwhelming political transformation remains a bit murky, and somewhat unconvincing. For instance, he acknowledges that his deliberate lies about Strange Justice caused him to question his own journalism. But it seems highly improbable that he didn’t realize until then that his breakthrough book was full of half-baked theories and garbled facts. He also cites his discomfort with the right’s social conservatism as a point of departure, which, because of his homosexuality, began to make him feel, as one of his fellow gay conservatives put it, like “a Jew in Hitler’s Army.” Yet again, it’s hard to understand why this didn’t matter when he first was recruited to the cause but did matter later.

Given his history of alienation from whatever group he became a part of, from his own family on, one has to wonder whether his break with the right wasn’t one more example of his assuming outsider status yet again. At any rate, Brock says that by the time he was paid a $1 million advance for what was expected to be a scathing book on Hillary Clinton by Simon and Schuster, which had bought the Free Press, he was beginning to be filled with self-loathing. No formal book proposal had been required from him. He says Jack Romanos, the publisher at Simon and Schuster, “asked me only one question before okaying the $1 million. Did I think Hillary Clinton was a lesbian? Romanos wanted to know. With a smirk, I assured him that if she were, I was just the man to find out.” But, later, he says he wondered, “Was this smirking asshole really me?”

When Brock’s book, The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, came out in 1996, it surprised her supporters and incensed his. He portrayed Hillary sympathetically as the dupe of her powerful husband. Still, Brock claims that with this book he began to appreciate the complexity of writing about three-dimensional characters. Once it was published, he says most of his conservative colleagues “excommunicated [me] overnight.” His literary agent, Glen Hartley, he says, “spat” at a party, “How can you defend that bitch?”

It seems clear that Brock never understood, and apparently still doesn’t, the way genuinely objective reporting is supposed to work. Although he says he never consciously distorted the truth until he reviewed Strange Justice, neither before nor after has he seemed to grasp the obligation to present all sides of an issue, to let the facts dictate the story, not the other way around, let alone the obligation to give subjects the opportunity to comment before attacking them. Blinded by the Right brims with salacious gossip, now about conservatives rather than liberals. But there’s still no evidence, for instance, that Brock tried to reach Matt Drudge for comment before ridiculing in print an alleged clumsy homosexual advance he made to Brock (for the record, Drudge denies having had “any romantic interest in him, whatsoever”), or, similarly, before describing his erstwhile best friend, the conservative opinion-monger Laura Ingraham, as crawling dead drunk across a discotheque floor, and repeating a friend’s story about how Ingraham “pulled a gun on a boyfriend after he broke up with her.”

But Brock had learned much else. By the time the Monica Lewinsky story broke in the press, making the impeachment of Clinton more likely, he was wiser than most mainstream reporters about the political forces behind it. He had heard prominent conservatives talk of “killing” and “impeaching” Clinton long before Lewinsky emerged. He personally knew the “elves,” the network of lawyers and operatives who had been working secretly to set a perjury trap for Clinton. And he also knew firsthand how partisan backers like Smith and Scaife had helped to finance the planting, digging, and harvesting of these stories in the open terrain of the American media. “For me,” Brock writes, “the Lewinsky scandal, with its hidden political agenda, was…the point of no return, that exposed the truth about everything I had been involved in for the past decade.”

A bit lost in all of this is a remarkable development in what was supposed to be impossible to resolve:a he-said/she-said stand-off about whether Clarence Thomas lied under oath on his way to the Supreme Court. There used to be two sides to this debate. Now the leading author of Thomas’s defense has thrown in the towel. Moreover, he has implicated quite a few others in the cover-up of the truth about Thomas, including the Justice himself. Brock apologizes a lot in this book for what he did to Hill, to us, to the Clintons, and to others, and he has a lot to apologize for. But so do many others who aided and abetted his effort to convert journalism into a political weapon.

Most of those whose names appear in this book have remained silent after its publication, neither denying nor confirming their roles. Maybe it’s because they are so busy. As Brock reflects at the end of his book, the players “who had been at the heart of the anti-Clinton conspiracy turned out to be a virtual Bush government in exile.” As the new administration was assembled, he notes, “Clarence Thomas’s wife Ginni [was] handling the flow of résumés.” Ted Olson became solicitor general. Spencer Abraham, a cofounder of the Federalist Society, became secretary of energy. John Ashcroft, one of the most outspoken voices for Clinton’s impeachment, became attorney general. And mid-level posts all over the government were filled, Brock notes, with “a rogues’ gallery from my past.” With the publication of Blinded by the Right, Brock is more of an outsider than ever. But many of those whose secrets he tells are now on the inside, where, instead of rewriting history, they now can make it.

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